Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Riddle in the Kech Hills

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The Chachnama, an early history of the Arab conquest of Sindh is a great repository of knowledge concerning the Arab invasion of Sindh. Among other things (like revealing the base character of some early Muslim heroes) it recounts how Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the governor of Iraq, famous for having sent his nephew and son in law Mohammed bin Qasim on the successful expedition against Sindh, earlier deputed a man called Saeed Kilabi to Makran.

On the borders of Makran, Kilabi met one Safahwi Hammami of the tribe of Alafi (we are not told who this man was) and asked him to join whatever expedition Kilabi was hastening to. It comes out of the words of the Chachnama that Hammami had some sort of gripe against Hajjaj and took offence at Kilabi’s presumption that he would join the man’s enterprise. There also appears to have been an altercation between the two when Hammami refused to join up. This cost him not only his head but his skin as well: Kilabi cut off the poor man’s top, and dispatched it to bin Yusuf. The Chachnama tells us that he also flayed the body, but does not say what the cruel man did with the skin. The book goes on to tell us that having then installed himself in Makran, Kilabi ‘succeeded in securing more wealth from Hindustan (than was ever secured before).’

Now it came to pass that as he one day went travelling through his domain Saeed Kilabi came upon a group of Alafis. As kinsmen of Hammami they took it upon themselves to avenge what they thought was a needless and unjust murder. In the ensuing fight Kilabi was killed and his army routed. The Alafis took control of Makran and Kilabi’s force was obligated to retire to Iraq. Upon hearing of the death of his favoured administrator, an incensed Hajjaj bin Yusuf ordered the retaliatory killing of one of the local Alafi elders. But even that not sufficiently cooling his wrath, he commanded his representative in Makran to persecute the Alafis wherever and whenever he came across them. The injunction according to the Chachnama was, ‘Find out the Alafis, and try your best to secure them, and exact the vengeance due to Saeed [Kilabi] from them.’

So great was the pressure on these people that by the year CE 703 growing Arab influence in Makran had forced many of the Alafis to seek asylum with Dahar, the king of Sindh. They were still in Dahar’s service when bin Qasim arrived at the gates of the country in 711 and they joined the Sindhis to fight gallantly against the invading Arabs. However, even so, the following year (704) Mohammed bin Haroon, the new governor of Makran, found an Alafi straggler in his domain and having murdered him wrote a gloating letter to Hajjaj bin Yusuf in Iraq. The Chachnama records that bin Haroon continued in his victorious career in Makran for the next six years when he accompanied Mohammed bin Qasim to Sindh and on the way died of a severe attack of the ague at Lasbela. His tomb stands in that town to this day.

Five years is a long and trying time for a persecuted people. If Baghdad, their home country, tormented them, Makran offered little solace. For those in such a situation, it would only be natural to seek a safe haven, a place difficult to assault where they could retire in the event of an attack by a larger force. Ever since I had first read the Chachnama many years ago, I had wondered about the location of this secret asylum – if at all it existed. If it did, I knew it would be the earliest Arab garrison in the subcontinent.

Recently in Turbat, friend Dr Taj Baloch told me of the little known site of Kussui Kalat – Castle of Kussu, up in Kech Bund (hills) northwest of town. Perched high up on a remote hilltop, the ruins were difficult to reach, he said, access being only from one side through a narrow and desolate gorge. A team of French archaeologists had recently spent some time there and from the surface collection of artefacts had deduced that the site was early Muslim. From what Taj described, it was clearly a safe haven – the citadel of the last stand. It could not have been a residential fortress so inaccessible and inhospitable it seemed to be from the description.

Taj had scarcely stopped speaking when the words of the Chachnama concerning the persecution and flight of the Alafis filled my mind. And so it was that another friend, Bijar Baloch, borrowed a pick-up truck and drove me west on the highroad to Mand on the Iranian frontier. At the village of Shaikan he handed me over to his cousin Mohammed Rahim, the Levies Jemadar. A quick cup of tea and we were motorcycling north in the dry bed of the Shorma stream. Ten kilometres later the hills closed in around us. Another six and we had to abandon Rahim’s motorcycle. Since leaving Shaikan we had not seen a soul, save the man and his family who sat about a tent in a small tree-less open place between low hills. Rahim stopped to chat, but we declined the offer of tea and bread and drove on.

The gorge where we left Rahim’s bike was narrow and wild. As we walked away I glanced back and said I hoped it would be safe. With a little laugh Rahim pointed to the sandy river bed and said there were no human footprints: no one had been there for many days. And no one could be expected. Wending our way upward, we passed occasional heaps of dressed stones. Taj had warned me to keep an eye out for them, for these, he had said, were the remnants of lookout posts.

An hour after leaving the bike we heaved ourselves onto the bowl-shaped crest. It was littered with cut stone and bricks. Scattered about the top were the remains of no less than fifteen buildings. The mosque was easily discernible because of the mehrab; the chief’s house from its large size. The house that overlooked the sheer fall into the valley below had perhaps belonged to the Chief of Security who would have kept a lookout at odd hours. Sadly, one of the rooms in this house had been dug up: the treasure hunters’ spade has reached even this remote site.

Here too was a stone-lined water channel bordered with fired bricks that had me marvelling at the Arabs’ facility to transport them to this remote and inaccessible place for even in the early Middle Ages there were no trees in the Kech Hills to fire brick kilns. The impetus of rain water running down the slope was broken by two stone piers before the water was trained into the channel. Though only a small length of it now remains, it once must have run on to the mosque or perhaps to a brick or stone-lined tank that may be smothered beneath the debris of ruined buildings. But Makran was a dry country in the 8th century, and this channel and the tank could scarcely have relieved periodic water shortages and the everlasting dread of a water famine. When they were holed up here, the Alafis would surely have sent out regular water-collecting convoys to the nearest stream – perhaps the same Shorma that we had travelled along.

Among the debris we collected several pieces of blue pottery with dark foliate designs, but our haphazard fossicking failed to turn up any coins or arrowheads. We climbed to the vantage of the house of the Chief of Security. Below us was a spreading panorama of fold upon fold of clay hills and narrow valleys. I could almost see it happening: alerted by the cloud of dust in the bed of the Shorma, the Alafi lookout spots bin Haroon’s troops an hour before they begin the long climb up the gorge. Warnings are rushed to the outlying pickets whose remains we had passed on our way up. When the unsuspecting imperial vanguard enters the tight gorge leading up to this castle it is cut to pieces by the Alafis in their turrets. Realising quickly what they are up against, the governor’s men reorganise to make a concerted assault but in the restrictive confines of the chasm they can advance only two or three abreast. It is hard work to clear the turrets of the defenders but despite the casualties, the invaders keep at it. The clatter of running fights in the gorge prepares the defenders for what lies ahead. They fight hard; their very survival depends on their valour and they rout their assailants. Bin Haroon’s troops retire in discomfiture only to return again another day.

Though the Chachnama simplifies the story, the end for the Alafis would not have come in a single action. Surely bin Haroon and his army had to fight long and hard to overcome the rebels. But I have no doubt in my mind that it was here in the ruins of Kussui Kalat that the Alafis’ last struggles were fought out against the imperial Arabs. And when the end came, the Alafis’ safe haven fell into disuse and its name – if it had one, was forgotten. Decades, perhaps even a few centuries, were to pass, the houses were to be reduced to mere foundations, the water tank choked with debris and articles of daily life all but turned to dust when a Baloch, Kussu by name, having chanced upon them would have given the sad and ghostly ruins his own name.

No one could tell me who this man may have been. He could just as well have been an ordinary shepherd or a tribal chief. He may have passed through here or sojourned in this wild gorge for a period of time. For the locals he is as unknown as the hapless Alafis who made their last stand in these hills.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 October 2013 at 18:35, Blogger AdvisoryTab said...

Very educative and interesting read in great racy style. Hajjaj was one of a kind. The chap, as Gov'nor of Medina, had the temerity to hold the hand of 92 years old Asma bine AbuBakr and propose to her so that he could become related to the prophet, pbuh. He was a real butcher and your narrative makes me marvel at the ease with which a colonial force could b led fight against such odds. Eg, the Americans, the ultimate force today, would give up much early, even at the 'gorge' stage.
Anyway, thank u for the forgotten part of history. Just by way of info, Allah in His strange ways, afforded Hajjaj the honour of applying the sound marks(Zer, Zabar, Pesh) to the whole Quranic script for ease of us Ajmies.

At 24 October 2013 at 06:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

All in all, Hujjaj was a cruel, inhuman person.

At 24 October 2013 at 12:24, Anonymous Amjed Ali said...

What I have read that Hajaj bin Yousaf was a very cruel man.

At 25 October 2013 at 20:45, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Someone needs to look into what is being taught in schools. We need the truth to be told right from the start. It can't be hidden anyway!

At 25 October 2013 at 21:08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

History has consequences!

At 26 October 2013 at 08:42, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar we live in a blighted, benighted land. Truth will NEVER be known and appreciated. Of the 200 million most only watch local TV channels!


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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